Whilst many vegetarians and vegans promote the environmental, economic and human-health benefits of living ‘meat-free’, for most people, choosing to abstain from animal products is a lifestyle choice founded upon a desire not to inflict cruelty or suffering to sentient beings. At this point, an impasse is usually reached and the debate stops at the mention of slaughtering animals.
I am a vegan, and have been for almost three years. Before that I was a ‘strict vegetarian’ (whatever that meant). All around the world environmental ‘demitarians‘ are choosing to halve their meat consumption, whilst socially conscious ‘flexitarians‘ are realising that they don’t need meat every day of the week. No matter what the label, the general consensus is that eating meat, and lots of it, is not all that great for humans, animals, or the environment. This debate has recently been brought to the public dinner table by the Eating Better campaign.
I hate the label game, and the buzzwords associated with ‘ethical-eating’, but when it comes to being a voluntary herbivore, it’s not the fanatical flesh feeders that I’m concerned about. Rather, it is those who believe that simply boycotting or abstaining from animal products is enough to ‘save the world’, or at least its animals. Having worked for an anti-factory farming organisation, Farms Not Factories, I was frequently advocating for sustainable, higher-welfare alternatives to industrially produced pork. Now, working for The Pig Idea, I am helping rear eight pigs on food waste that will eventually become pork. Yes, that means sending them to slaughter – cue the hate mail.
“Why would a vegan be involved in advocating any kind of killing?” – A question I am regularly asked by people. The world is abundant in hypocrisy and paradoxes that can keep you up at night, so it happens that pairing animal rights with many other current issues is my particular midnight mystery. There are a myriad of reasons that cause sustainable, high-welfare farmers to go out of business, as well as increasing the corporate share of the meat industry by industrial producers, however there is one issue in particular that has a huge impact on smaller farmers: animal feed.
Unlike smaller, more sustainable livestock farmers, larger producers are able to deal with the high and volatile prices of commercial feed. However, this advantage on their part can lead to welfare issues and in turn human health issues. Commercial animal feed is largely produced outside of the EU, by large agribusinesses in the US and South America. These companies own vast landscapes of cereal and soy crops, foodstuffs that could be fed to humans, which are used primarily to fatten livestock. These fields result in extensive deforestation for the sake of short-term, highly profitable, monocultures. Furthermore, for those more interested in the animals at hand, global deforestation linked to the mass production of crops for animal feed continues to cause biodiversity loss, through the destruction of entire species and habitats. As meat consumption continues to increase, so will these rates of destruction – giving up meat isn’t enough, we need to ensure the direction meat production is heading is away from intensification and towards more sustainable practices.
Admittedly, the UK is far better when it comes to animal welfare than most other countries, however due to the greater costs associated with these standards, we now import a large percentage of the meat we eat as a nation. As a report published earlier this year by the National Pig Association suggests: where the cost of pork increases in one country, the demand for cheaper meat will lead to lower welfare pork being sourced from neighbouring countries. If people therefore are going to eat meat, we need to ensure there are enough small to medium scale, high welfare, sustainable livestock producers in the UK, available to meet their demands. This isn’t just something veggies are thinking about – according to Compassion in World Farming’s Labeling Matters campaign, 83% of consumers think that the way meat is produced should be made clear on food labels. Supermarkets and restaurants need to be encouraged to source their meat at a national level from smaller, higher-welfare farms, to ensure the meat is not only healthy and tasty, but that it is also accessible and affordable for those who wish to eat meat.
Of course, an ‘ideal’ world for most vegans is one free of suffering for all sentient beings, but it is surely greater to take these initial stepping stones across the pond than to keep jumping and falling into the murky green-washed waters of ‘sustainable intensification’. I’m not by any means suggesting veggies should start buying meat to keep farmers in business. Nor am I expecting anyone to go as far as the likes of Temple Grandin and design slaughter plants. However, I find nothing paradoxical about not eating meat, whilst at the same time advocating ‘good’ meat. The infighting between veggie and non-veggie campaign organisations must be extinguished. Vegans and vegetarians alike need to push their meat-free ways one step further and demand better welfare for all animals, in order to progress towards a sustainable system of agriculture for people, animals, and the environment. As for our carnivorous companions, halving your meat intake makes a huge impact, but that remaining half must come from the right kind of farms.
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